Storytelling has been with mankind for as long as we can remember; yes…that’s humorous. Whether it began as a means of oral history or entertainment (it was likely both) it has captivated people. The means have changed over time, what was spoken by a single orator or actor in front of the cave’s fire is now a vision manifested by the most skilled artists and advanced software. Filmmakers have returned to the keystone of imagination and its limitless possibilities. Whether it be rocks and a drum aiding Cro-Magnon man or current day symphonies and music software with composers, the relationship between music and stories is one of the longest enduring marriage in the arts. 2017’s Karma is a CGI animated film of a cautionary tale. This recent release has already been nominated in over 30 film festivals all over the world and has won 8 awards, including Best Original Score: Honorable Mention at the Asians on Film Festival (US, 2017) for its composer Massimiliano Lombardo. Director Peter Zhou directly reached out to Lombardo (also known as Max) after seeing bits and samples of other animated movies he had previously scored. Because Karma contains very little sound FX and no dialogue at all in the movie, the music would become a main character. The film also has a wall to wall score, meaning that the music is present from the opening scene through to the final credits. Keeping the music interesting and effective all the time without being able to hide behind sound fx or dialogue required an inventive and assertive composer like Max. Zhou requested a score that would engage the audience but not pull their attention away.
A film composer’s task is to write music to picture in order to enhance the emotional impact of the movie and help tell the story. Karma is a traditional 3D animated movie (like Pixar’s movies). After meeting and discussing the music with director Peter Zhou and animator Franklin Okike, Max decided to write a classical full orchestral score with memorable melodies and motifs. The first step was to write a theme for the main character, from which the whole score would be developed. Lombardo recalls, “I watched the picture twice and then shutdown the computer and focused on music for an entire day. Once I had a theme I started composing the actual score to picture, adapting the theme to it. During this process I wrote entirely on the piano in something called sketches.” Sketches are reductions of what will be the actual full score. They contain the main ideas, the rhythm, and the harmony but without orchestration. From there Max began the orchestration, choosing the right orchestral colors and arranging for an ensemble. Given the size of an orchestra, writing for it without a sketch can get a bit dispersive. Max used this method to focus on one thing at the time: rhythm and dramatic impact of the music first, then orchestral embellishments, textures, and finally colors.
Lombardo had an immediate affinity for this film and its message, which greatly aided his role as composer. He confirms, “It really makes a big difference when you fall in love with the movie you are scoring. With Karma it was love at first sight for me. First of all, the movie is incredibly well designed and animated. Characters and landscapes are incredibly detailed and evocative. Furthermore, the movie is very well structured and has a built in rhythm to it. All these elements together are the perfect backbone to a score. The characters would suggest the themes, the colors and textures would inspire orchestral colors and arrangements, while the structure would dictate the rhythm of the score.” Karma tells the story of a boy who meets a fish in a mysterious forest. The boy starts feeding the fish and the fish grows exponentially. He gets carried away and feeds the fish everything he has with him regardless of whether this is good for the little creature. The fish keeps growing until he eventually turns into a monster and eats the boy. The movie is a metaphor for the way we are treating our planet and the animals in it. Actions without conscience lead to disaster for us and all who inhabit Earth.
Upon viewing, the music in Karma seems so perfectly matched and obvious…yet, prior to Max’s compositions there were a myriad of possible ways that the score could emotionally affect the audience. Carefully taking this into consideration so that he might deliver the intended impact of the action, Lombardo delicately crafted the music for Karma. He explains how his work colored scenes stating, “There are two scenes in which I think the music really added a layer to the movie. One is when we first realize the fish is getting bigger. In this moment the score gets majestic and magical taking the point of view of the boy, but then goes into a darker tone as we start sensing that something is wrong. Here the music really anticipates and creates suspense before the big reveal when the fish turns into a monster. The other moment is at the very end when the fish eats the boy. Here I didn’t want to make it too dramatic as the movie had to be playful overall. I decided to build a dark orchestral piece that ends with a silly resolution that almost sounds like a Tom & Jerry cartoon, leaving a smile on people’s face when the end credits come in.
Contemplating Lombardo’s score for Karma, Peter Zhou relates, “We were really trying to go to some new places with this film. We straddled a line to deliver a message while making it entertaining and not heavy handed. I’m sure that it is frightening for a composer to play their new creation to someone for the first time; it’s a very delicate moment. As soon as I watched the film with Max’s score, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was perfect! He perfectly captured the message and the mood of the movie, adding an extra layer to it that made it complete. I think he really captured the essence of the movie.” Whether he is working with the finest LA musicians, the London Symphony Orchestra, or digital music software, Max Lombardo continually brings a fresh and creative approach to modern film composition and orchestration.